Let’s Get Serious: Bloomberg’s the One

New York City is more populous than 100 of the world’s countries, and yet our Mayor’s race next week is between two dwarfs, Cocky and Sleepy, and one of them we even imported from Boston. What’s the matter with our farm system?

Before they fade, let’s remember the contestants that the Democrats put up. C. Virginia Fields was David Dinkins without pizzazz. She wanted to give her heart and our money to everyone; in return, everyone would give her his head. That’s what happened, anyway, to the Asian-American couple whose noggins were Photoshopped over the torsos of a white couple in a piece of Fields campaign literature, the better to show the gorgeousness of the mosaic supporting her. N.B., all future candidates: Hire some extras of the appropriate ethnicity for your shoots—it’s less costly in the long run. Gifford Miller should have had a head Photoshopped over his own—one that knew how to run a campaign. When the primary was over, Mr. Miller finished behind downtown gadfly Christopher X. Brodeur in the Bronx. Maybe if he had sent out some more mailings detailing his exploits as City Council Speaker, he would have squeaked into fourth place.

Anthony Weiner, by contrast, ran a strong and sensible campaign—until the very end, when he announced that he would bow out of a runoff to give Fernando Ferrer an early decision. As it turned out, Mr. Ferrer managed to squeeze over 40 percent, the threshold for first-round victory, making the issue moot. But suppose Mr. Ferrer had fallen short? Why does Mr. Weiner get to rewrite the election laws at the last minute? The Weiner concession looked like politeness, but it had, in fact, the potential of undermining the rules, whose legitimacy depends on being understood in advance and followed in practice. American elections are still recovering from the snarl of Bush v. Gore; they don’t need another shove from Anthony Weiner in the direction of arbitrariness and whimsy.

That leaves as Democratic nominee—and tribune of the party of Mario Cuomo and Hillary Clinton—Fernando Ferrer. Every morning, the Metro section of The Times arrives with a picture of Mr. Ferrer campaigning, and my wife and I have the following debate: Does the photo editor hate him, and select shots that make him look bad, or are those the only shots of him that it is possible to take? This is Mr. Ferrer’s third run for Mayor, and he has achieved a kind of perfection: He is a black hole of energy, intelligence and charisma. Perhaps the trauma goes back to his days in public school, when Sister Mary Francis made him stand in the wastebasket.

So victory beckons the incumbent, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the “pick-nose control freak,” in the words of Christopher Hitchens. I cannot speak to the Mayor’s nose, but the one evening I spent with him was one of the grimmest encounters with a politician I have ever had. Mayor Bloomberg has the unlovely habit of hearing all sides of a question—for about 60 seconds, when he trots out his personal thought-stopper: “Let’s get serious.” This means that he is serious, you are not. He is smart, you are dumb. He has billions, you do not.

Every reasonably effective Mayor of New York has a gargantuan ego. The form of Mayor Bloomberg’s ego is the potency of information untrammeled by ideology. This is the traditional narcotic of businessmen when they venture into politics: Don’t bother me with all that politics, just give me the facts. But facts can point in different directions depending on what you want to do with them. So the man beyond ideology is in fact the prisoner of the ideologies of other people, who present the facts to him or otherwise influence him in ways that he is too self-absorbed to notice.

The Mayor’s anti-smoking crusade was a classic example. He will point to studies which show that secondhand smoke gives people cancer. But, of course, there are other studies which show that it doesn’t. In fact, the Mayor didn’t need any studies at all, except as ribbons to tie up the package. The right-thinking circles he moves in have a classist prejudice against smoking, which he enacted into law. I prefer the preachers who say it’s the devil’s weed.

A similar single-mindedness informed his campaign for the West Side stadium, which would have housed the Jets and the Olympics. Maybe no Mayor could have resisted the temptation to put such a big public-works mark on the city. What a bad idea nevertheless. Study after study (though none that landed on the Mayor’s desk) has shown that stadiums cost cities a bundle while generating revenue for a few hot-dog push-carts. The West Side stadium would have been as expensive as the Tweed Courthouse, and less lovely. Adding in the Olympics—assuming we had won the bid—would have been like hosting a second U.N.

The bars have absorbed the economic hit of the smoking ban, and circumstances beyond the Mayor’s control have saved us from the stadium. That leaves his achievements, which have been considerable. After tireless lobbying in Albany, the Mayor managed to transform the Board of Education, that dysfunctional fiefdom, into a Department of Education under his control. The old set-up was a monster, a country within a country, like an Indian casino playing craps with children’s education. The new set-up establishes accountability that people can understand. School performance is now like crime: If the figures improve, the Mayor can take credit, because the Mayor has responsibility. If they tank, the voters know whom to blame.

The Mayor also deserves credit for continuing the Giuliani anti-crime wave. Ray Kelly is the best police commissioner we have had since Bill Bratton. Republicans—even nominal ones like Mayor Bloomberg—have earned their recent tenure in City Hall by their devotion to law and order. In the late 60’s, that was a phrase of attack politics, mired in controversy over whether it encoded racism. In the 90’s, New York City pondered its literal meaning. We were in the abyss, and we were pulled from it. Mayor Bloomberg has kept us in the healthy uplands.

We take the sweet with the bitter. The Mayor’s prickly qualities helped give us benefits, as well as pains in the butt. I’ll try to avoid his company, but I’ll vote to keep him in office for another four years.